Getting Better
Volunteering outside Siem Reap, Cambodia

This post is very near and dear to Tim and I. We knew we wanted to take advantage of the time we had during our travels to volunteer at some point on the trip. Cambodia always seemed like the most likely place. Half of the 12 million people who live there are under the age of 22. (In America half the population is under 36). There are politics involved with volunteering though. Many orphanages demand a fee – and it is not insignificant. Volunteering for three to six months is the best way to get around this, but not everyone has that much time. We were lucky to run into a woman in Phuket who had just come from the Savong School and gave us the info. Our experience there was phenominal.

While no day was the same during our two weeks. Here’s what our days were filled with:

An interesting Commute

Our stylin' driver

We stayed in the Siem Reap area. It was a half hour ride to the village in a tuk-tuk each morning. We usually got picked up by Pong Sen, our driver and Savong’s 18 year old brother, sometime between 7:30 and 8am at our guesthouse. Our sunglasses were never such a vital accesory. As we got on the main highway the dust always came flying into our face (sometimes along with small pebbles and other deadly flying objects). We were usually traveling along side large busses, trash trucks, and thousands of other motorbikes before finally turning off onto a dirt road with a view of an amazing ruin (which we later learned was the Bakong temple). We made our way for another five minutes through the village before finally finding ourselves at the orphanage.

Mornings At the Orphanage
Our arrival was always greeted with anticipation. Some mornings the younger children would be on our laps before the tuk-tuk was stopped. Other days if lessons were in session we would see waves from the classroom and the older boys would instead steal our attention for a few minutes (anxious to talk about hip-hop “do you know who Nas is?”) before heading to teach the younger kids a song or game if it could be helped instead of teaching a serious lesson. The older kids sat for the next hour.

Watching "The Lion King" on the ipad turned out to an exciting event for the kids

After that we had some time free time. We had no direction, so it was mystery to us to find out how to entertain the kids during this time – but we figured it out. Uno was a particular favorite, as they had to announce the colors and numbers in English. We also brought in regular cards, and were delighted to watch some of the younger children ask, “Ro-Been, do you have any threes?” Vollyball is practicly the national sport of Cambodia (basketball isn’t far behind), and Tim found himself sweating in the Cambodian sun, playing with the older kids (who had some serious skills according to TIm).

There are no tables and chairs in the orphanages. All meals take place on the kitchen floors. the floor is thoroughly mopped and swept before each meal, but that doesn’t stop it from getting dirty quickly. There are puppies at the orphanage that tend to be tempted into the kitchen by the food as well. It wasn’t an usual event find a small puddle on the floor next to where the children were sitting.
The meal consisted of rice, fish, and a broth or sauce of some sort.

Trying to get the fish smell off our hands proved to be the biggest issue

One day we had mango with decent sized fish that we could honestly say we enjoyed, but most days we weren’t as lucky. The lunch was a great experience though. We got laughed at, and had to be taught how to seperate the small fish from their bones with only a spoon and our fingers (I failed miserable and constantly realized there were bones lodged in my throat too late).

Nap Time
After lunch the younger children and many of the older ones napped. Like most hot weather countries, it’s considered normal practice to nap and then bath perhaps a second time. I spent this time usually on a swing seat chatting with the older girls who were just returning from their morning classes. It was my favorite time of the day. I especially wanted to understand what life was like for a sixteen year old in an orphanage in Cambodia. And they wanted to know what my life was like. After several days with them no topic seemed to be off-limit. We spoke openly about life for women in Cambodia versus in America.

Teaching English at the Savong School
The school was just down the road from the orphanage and offered free English classes (or Japanese classes) to students in the surrounding villages. The school is quite popular. Classes are held from 2pm to 7pm (as not to interfere with government school). There are three classrooms that are all in use during these hours. We would teach five classes back-to-back ranging from beginner to university students. each was a unique and exhausting experience.

The biggest question we get is, “Did you know how to teach English as a second language?” The answer is no. Normally there is a Khmer teacher there that can help guide you while you teach, but the teacher who taught most of the classes we were working with was out sick the first week. We were handed a marker and told “Okay, teach.” Tim and I looked at each other, bewildered and then learned very quickly what to do. There were classes we had to teach the “perfect continuous tense”, classes that were learning about careers, and then there was our fourth class. That was when over 50 young children would fill into the small cinderblock classroom. As they came in the heat would rise and the smell assaulted our noses. This class learned shapes and farm animals. We spent a lot of the class yelling over them the lyrics to songs like Old McDonald. Before this class began I would sit on the side and watch the kids play games in the grass. I was enthralled by the way they played. No one was left out, no one was made fun of, everyone just smiled. Tim and I tried to remember what the lives of these children were like. Learning English was an indulgence for them. They were thankful to be there. Tim and I were never left alone for too much time to get lost in though though. Between classes children loved to practice their English with us. They also wanted me to tell them what snow was like, and American foods. I felt like I was telling them fairly tales. Of course, now I feel like I’m telling you fairy tales, about a society so innocent that they don’t know to be cynical. They don’t know they’re supposed to think school is lame and call other kids names to make them feel superior. They grow up to be the kinds of people that you want to make up this world.

Maybe it’s just the old axiom that you can’t help others without helping yourself, but there’s no doubt that we learned more than we taught during those weeks. We know absolutely that it was the single greatest thing we did while in Asia, and we would love to do it again. There’s nothing better than volunteering, if you do it in the right place. We got to help people who sincerely needed our help in the world, and at the same time it made us better people.

Also, because I can’t help myself please enjoy these other moments from the orphanage:

riding with two of our faves: Soon and Utdom

we donated (among other things) 250Kilos of rice...

...which broke the tuk-tuk and sent us flying into a ditch later that night(unhurt)

Tim helped make a small fence for a garden...

...the children decided to use the saws to make wooden knives and bow &arrows. I couldn't take them away.

My money was on the chicken

bath time

“You and I can’t change the world, but we can change ourselves. We can change our own families, and we can even change our own neighborhoods. There, nobody has excuses.”
– Manu Chao


5 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Tim
    Apr 08, 2011 @ 03:38:27

    In retrospect it’s funny to think about the things that bring us joy back home. We love those things but this experience really was no match. By the end of the 2 weeks we realized we severely under estimated the happiness it would bring us.


  2. Betsy
    Apr 11, 2011 @ 14:50:23

    This wonderful experience of “having children” will always be a part of you two. Thanks again for sharing it. However you embed these chronicles in your resumes; no doubt you will be embraced (or should I say re-embraced?) by corporate America or whomever. Yours won’t be careers interrupted; rather enhanced, as has been every one of us; your readers.



  3. Hol
    Apr 25, 2011 @ 04:49:18

    Thanks so much for this. I`ve been looking for an opportunity to teach children while travelling South East Asia later this year, and I wanted a school that I could genuinely help: this is perfect. Awesome. x


  4. Duncan Stuart
    Jun 18, 2011 @ 05:06:41

    Guys – great writing, and photos that make me want to be there right now. Thank you so much for your time, energy and gifts to assist the SOC and the children at Savong’s School.

    I’ve posted a link to your blog from the website

    Ha – and the photo of making bows and arrows. Those little children seem to be magetised to anything sharp and dangerous!!

    My best wishes to you


    • wheresbatman
      Jun 18, 2011 @ 05:29:35

      Thanks Duncan. It really was a great experience. We’re grateful for Dana pointing us in the right direction. We’d love to keep it touch with the school – I’ll send a note to your email. We hope the post has sent a volunteer or two your way!


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